Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Emperor Biff


When I ran The Sugar Hill Invasion for Babies With Knives I needed to make some changes because one of the players wasn't thrilled with the adventure as he'd seen it before.

I've always loved the trope of fallen-cosmic-threat, at least since I saw the Lord of Order incorporated in Kent Nelson's old body in William Moessner-Loaebs' run on Doctor Fate, so I decided that it would be nice to use that as my magic-explaining-device. So I created Emperor Biff, and I offer him to you.

Emperor Biff (aka Empyreanus Bane)

Emperor Biff is an eight-pound long-haired chihuahua. He used to be a being of unimaginable cosmic power and now he is reduced to this. He is under guard/owned-by the significant SHIELD/STAR/PATRIOT/PRIMUS/Argus/whatever organization in your game, the one that deals with cosmic or mystical threats.

A spell has trapped the essence of Empyreanus Bane in this dog. They don't know if the dog is now immortal or not; they don't know what will happen to the essence if the dog dies. Therefore the organization protects him. Keeping him on base with other trapped cosmic beings is less risky than having him in someone's home. (For one thing, the base is armored.)

The dog can talk. He is prone to referring to humans as "pokes of meat and heartbreak" and once referred to his current predicament as "a ton of cosmic mastery in a five-pound sack." He is haughty, mouthy, sarcastic and seems utterly unwilling to escape, possibly because of Rainbow.

Rainbow Timm is the young daughter of Dr. Timm, one of the researchers in the organization. Dr. Timm has no spouse, so Rainbow is often in the complex. Rainbow likes to dress Emperor Biff in doll clothes and have elaborate tea parties. Rainbow and the Empyreanus Bane have formed a connection.

Dr. Timm is not sure whether the connection manages to control Emperor Biff or this is an eventual escape route for Empyreanus Bane. Perhaps when the dog body dies, the Bane will move to the attached victim. Regular scans by a magician show nothing, but...

3 4 1 5 4 2 3
  • Occult Master
  • Performance: Rituals Expert
  • Stealth
  • Dog senses: Fair (4) Super-senses (Smell +2, Hearing +1, Tracking Scent)
  • Bite and Claws: Poor (1) Slashing
  • Cosmic connection: Good (6) Detect Cosmic events
  • Former cosmic menace: Average (3) Magic
  • A talking chihuahua, with dog limitations (small, etc.) and unable to perform rituals because of lack of hands
  • Former dimension-spanning conqueror
  • Loyal (to his great shame) to Rainbow Timm

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Mr. Verity


For your vigilante-style adventures awash in the mire of the streets...

When a mob boss needs to hire a supervillain, he wants to know if the guy's gonna do the job and hand over the item or try to keep it. Or worse, if the guy's actually a superhero in disguise. That's when he hires Mr. Verity.

Mr. Verity can tell if someone's lying just by being in skin-to-skin contact.

But Mr. Verity doesn't admit to *all* he can do. He doesn't, for example, talk about the "keep Mr. Verity safe" mental blocks he lays down. He doesn't even admit that he can do that. "Oh, no, just a fancy lie detector, that's me."

And he knows things. Comes of poking in minds as he does. And sooner or later, he's going to orchestrate an action that involves the heroes...



3 4 3 4 4 7 10
SpecialtiesBusiness, Law, Power (Mind control)
  • Detect (truthfulness) Great (6)
    • Limit: Close (must be in skin contact)
    • Extra: Telepathy
    • Extra: Mind Control (both share the limit)
  • Mental Resistance Average (3)
  • It's just business
  • Close to the vest
  • A pre-emptive nudge is okay

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Some Halloween ideas...


Gah! Over a month! Here, have this!

Halloween ideas

Being some things that popped into my head if you wanted to, oh, slot a Halloween-themed adventure into your superhero campaign.*

*Might not be suitable for all superheroes. Might not be suitable for all campaigns.

The problem with superheroes and holidays is that superheroes imply control and power, and being frightened implies not. But I'm willing to steal the trappings for the holiday.

  • Superheroes chase the ghost of Jack the Ripper (or cause of Jack the Ripper) before he kills again.
  • Werewolves invade from another dimension. When they're not wolfy, they look just like regular folk, so it's hard to find them.
  • Superheroes journey in the nightmares of a catatonic superhero who can save the world, making a fantastic voyage to the trauma at the source of all of this catatonia.
  • Death takes a holiday...and in the midst of suffering folk who cannot die the heroes discover that Death has in fact been kidnapped by an elderly sorcerer who wants to live forever. (Image: Death is trapped in a snow globe paperweight, which each of the characters suddenly seems to own...)

    Of course, the early part of this adventure needs to involve a Punisher-style vigilante who is being chased by the people he's trying to kill. Because if you can't kill them, you aren't nearly as much of a threat to them...

  • Ambrosia Valentine has a goal: the elimination of all monsters. And all she has to do is kill a few people who are important to the PCs, to get the ingredients for the ritual that will transfer all of their abilities to her. She asks the heroes to kill her after she completes the ritual...and she doesn't bother to mention the necessary deaths. (Hey, she's willing to lay down her life for this...what's a few loved ones of superheroes extra?)
  • An occult research comes to the heroes with news: their powers are weakening the walls between universes and inviting the bad Lovecraftian things. Do the heroes give up their powers, especially given that kaiju are about to attack the city? And is it all secretly a ploy by their arch-enemies, Malice in Plunderland?

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Improbable Tales 4: Vampires of Red Square


Obligatory Warning

If you are spoiler-wary, this entry and this series is full of spoilers for a six-year-old product. If you don't want to know what's in one of Fainting Goat's first eleven Improbable Tales adventures, well, don't read this. Okay? Okay. Today we'll talk about the third volume in the series, Vampires of Red Square, written by Mike Lafferty, Dan Houser, & Chris Groarty, with art by Adrian Smith, John Gibbons & Dan Houser. I have not run this one.


A time-traveling Nazi commando unit arrives in Moscow, and the head Nazi decides to create four dozen vampires and take over.


Uh, what part of “time-traveling Nazi vampire commandos” did you not like? I'm totally biased: vampires and werewolves are two of my favourite flavours. The military aspect of it initially put me off, but once I got the vibe I quite liked this. It's goofy fun with an emphasis on fun: The bad guys are undeniably bad (there are no shades of gray in this one). One of the optional endings has a big fakeout which I like; there's no explanation of how Mannheim knows the important detail, so you'd have to invent that, but it's a really nice fakeout, and it gives the whole thing a fine reason to actually be in Moscow. These are pretty decent vampires, in mild and spicy flavours. Haven't tried the werewolves out. Oh...there's another optional ending with a giant undead Lenin striding through Red Square. That's just cool. And later you have Nazis who want presumably to get back to their home time and “fix” things.


None of these are big dislikes, but they did come to mind. The bad guys have created a few dozen new vampires...that is, killed a few dozen people. If you're running a strictly G-rated campaign, then you need to think about this. Maybe it's a spell by Mannheim and the vampires get better if Mannheim is himself destroyed (hey, it worked in Batman comics when Doug Moench was writing it). Maybe the sudden appearance of light will shock them back to human because they're only pseudo-vampires at this point. PATRIOT gets bigger and bigger: in this adventure, it operates in Russia. On a per-adventure basis, it exists to make things easier to set up, but it feels like as a whole, there's an organization that could do some harm. Given the organization's name, I feel like it should be restricted to the USA, and it's a paragraph to introduce the Russian or the international agency. Not a big deal to fix in your game; they're actually working for MATRYOSHKA or IDES (International Directive for Espionage and Supers) or COINS (Cooperative Oversight for Investigation of Normals and Supers). One of the villains, Dr. Night, has magic at a level of 7. The appearance of a wizard with magic 7, a vampire infestation, possible werewolves, and a couple of sorcerous totems has to get the Necromancer's attention, but he's not mentioned. I understand that the adventures are not really joined, but the existence of the PATRIOT name does indicate some kind of shared world, so it would be nice to include a line like, "Off fighting Dark Pharaoh."

Changes and Consequences

Well, you need to justify the absence of the Iron Hand and of Necromancer. Dr. Night has Magic (well, originally Wizardry) 7. Necromancer, from last adventure, has the same power but at level 8. You'd think Necromancer would care about the appearance of Herr Doktor Nacht, but he does not show up. (In the real world, that is because John Post didn't write the adventure, and because adventures come in when they come in, but we are not concerned with such mundanities.) Or I'd throw it all in: the Iron Hand brings a sub up the Moskva River, Necromancer appears and is immediately caught up with the Dark Pharaoh, giant ants appear...okay, strike that one. But I might consider complicating it even more, especially if it's early in the campaign. (Complicate early, prune later.) The growth of PATRIOT is a seed you can cultivate for later: does every UN country have a version of PATRIOT? Is PATRIOT a loose association of organizations? Or is it a single “super-organization” that fights its own political battles? In these adventures, PATRIOT is used as a means to hand PCs stuff in a convenient way, but you could do a whole PATRIOT centered organization, or you could do a Captain America: Winter Soldier thing where you bring it down—“Patriot? But patriot to whom?” Or I'd create some kind of excuse—that PATRIOT was helping unofficially—and I'd springboard the creation of some global spy/superhero agency from it. Then you could call them when you need to go to, say, Tokyo in an upcoming adventure. Having said all of that, this is actually the last time that PATRIOT takes an active role in Improbable Tales, Volume 1. In adventure 5 (Dr. Warp) the army takes their place; they get name-checked in adventure 10 (Through the Looking Glass) but don't actually show up.

Assembled Updates

Part of the drill is that Invulnerability becomes Damage Resistance; Life Drain becomes Energy Drain; Wizardry becomes Magic (except when it becomes Gadgets).

Vampires in general

Invulnerability becomes Damage Resistance, with the Limit: Not vs. silver or holy weapons. Immortality gets the Limit: Negated by sunlight or beheading. Life Drain becomes Energy Drain.

Vampire Troopers and SS Vampires

Replace their aspects with these three Qualities:
  • Undead vampire
  • Vampire weaknesses; a stake through the heart causes a Stun result that lasts until the stake is removed
  • Must drink blood to survive (only Energy Drain recovers Stamina

Baron Mannheim

Replace his aspects with these three Qualities:
  • Time-Traveling Nazi Vampire Commando
  • Vampire weaknesses; a stake through the heart causes a Stun result that lasts until the stake is removed
  • Must drink blood to survive (only Energy Drain recovers Stamina
In the normal case, Nazi and Vampire are his prime motivations.

Doctor Night

Replace Wizardry with Magic; replace Summon with Servant. Perhaps ignore the mental attributes of the demonic minions; I discussed this in the last adventure. His aspects become thse Qualities:
  • Undead Egyptian sorcerer
  • “For the glory of Set”
  • The true goal is ruling Egypt


To his Hellfire Thrower, add this Limit: Blows up for Amazing damage if ignited by called shot. And his aspects become these Qualities:
  • Occult Nazi Stormtrooper
  • Grotesque physical appearance
  • A melding of man and magic


Change the Invulnerability to Damage Resistance (Limit: Not vs. silver); the Alter-Ego should be Transformation into an animal form with a limit that each Blutwolf becomes itself as a mundane wolf...or I'd drop the power, because it's really no different than Billy Batson saying "Shazam!". Its aspects become these Qualities:
  • Forest creature mutated by Mannheim
  • Extra vulnerable to silver (+1 degree of damage)
  • Bloodthirsty Feral Berserker

Night Hunter

I'd actually give him a level 5 in Vehicle because I'd beef up the cycle a bit. (See next section.) His aspects become these Qualities:
  • Agent of PATRIOT
  • Brusque demeanor over a caring heart
  • Finds and kills vampires


This adventure presents three vehicles that have to be updated to the Icons Assembled rules: a cargo truck, a helicopter, and a personal skybike, apparently part of PATRIOT issue for some agents. However, the vehicles really are movement devices and should be represented as vehicles.


HandlingGreat (6)
SpeedFair (4)
StructureFair (4)
ArmorWeak (1)
  • No protection in combat
  • Remote Control
  • Hidden bolo-gun (Good (5) Binding)

Cargo Truck

HandlingFair (4)
SpeedFair (4)
StructureGreat (6)
ArmorWeak (1)


HandlingGreat (6)
SpeedGood (5)
StructureAverage (3)
  • Door-mounted machine gun (Good (5) Blast)


A lot of moving parts to play with. I'd still say this is an A, but if you have used PATRIOT or vampires before, it may leave consequences for you to clean up.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Improbable Tales Volume 1: Aqua-zombies of the Kriegsmarine



This one took a while, because there were a lot of characters to update to Icons Assembled and I made updating them part of this series. A couple of adventures in this series have a lot of NPC characters to change and think about (the third, fourth, and sixth, for instance). And I sometimes get hung up on things like, oh, the Servant power. The minions in the third, fourth, and sixth adventure should be called with the Servant power, but that power explicitly says that the summoned servants have no mental stats. I have chosen to interpret this as meaning that these are never characters who will decide not to fight, but it doesn't mean they have no mental stats. We could argue for a Minion power that does the exact same thing except the created characters have mental stats and aren't as loyal. Nertz to it.

Obligatory Warning

If you are spoiler-wary, this entry and this series is full of spoilers for a six-year-old product. If you don't want to know what's in one of Fainting Goat's first eleven Improbable Tales adventures, well, don't read this. Okay?


Today we'll talk about the third adventure in the series, Aqua-Zombies of the Kriegsmarine, written by Mike Lafferty, John Post & Chris McGroarty, with art by Adrian Smith & Jon Gibbons.

I have run this one; I ran it on Roll20 a couple of years ago.

Another disclaimer

By the way, I just noticed something. I've re-read these adventures several times, but sometimes I need to find a specific reference and I use Adobe Acrobat's search feature. That doesn't always work: something about the early adventures means that the text isn't there to be searched. (I presume they were saved as images or something.) So I may make an assertion and be wrong because it didn't come up when I searched the PDF. Bear with me if that happens; I'll apologize and take your corrections.


A sunken Nazi U-boat from WW2 is being hauled out of the water for a museum, but it contained canisters of an alchemical serum. One of the things the serum does is raise the dead as zombies, and yes, a canister ruptured. And to make it better, a neo-Nazi group and mystics want the remaining serum.

This is the first appearance of the Dark Pharaoh (and the Necromancer), and the Dark Pharoah plays a bigger part in adventure 6, The Other Side.

It's probably worth noting that the Necromancer and Dark Pharaoh characters are specifically called out as being the property of John Post. That isn't noted elsewhere, but John Post is one of the people who provided the idea for adventure 6.


This adventure has something I don't see as often as I'd like: an optional scene at the end. Everything is complete at the end of Action Scene 2, but if you have time, you can go on to scene 3, stormnng the base of the bad guys.

You get to stomp Nazi butt, which is certainly a comics thing to do, and it can be fun.

There's a robot squid. (The Improbable Tales adventures certainly bring the whacky without making it out of place, which I utterly admire...)

I haven't decided if this is a thing I like or not: Adventures 3 through 6 in this adventure all provide minions you can use lethal force on. Zombies, vampires, robots, and extradimensional monsters: great foes for the hero with a gun. They're a lesson in providing minions who are not human. But this adventure also provides minions who are human. You might not like the neo-Nazi members of the Iron Hand, but they are people, and the players are due for trouble if their characters fold, stab, spindle, or mutilate them.

And you get a map of a German U-boat and an island headquarters.

It's nice to see zombies buffed up for this adventure. Your typical superhero can just walk through a bunch of Icons Assembled zombies, and these are a bit tougher.


You have at least one powerful NPC floating around, so the adventure gives you advice on how to keep that character from stealing fun from the main characters. (But at least it gives you that advice, so put the fact of that in the Likes section.)

Minor historical note: this adventure calls out the German Thule society. I might be incorrect, but although a number of high-ranking German officers were mystics or inclined that way, I think that the practice of magic was banned by the Nazis before the war. However, (WW2 Nazi = Magic!) is so ingrained in comics that I doubt it's worth arguing about. Anyway, it's trivial to create a hidden magical society if one of your players talks about this.

There are a lot of NPCs in this. It's not too difficult to keep track of them, but you'd be forgiven for skipping the third scene just to keep the number of NPCs under control. (The third scene is fun, though.)

If you don't want to spread out to other countries and dimensions, well, it's possible to reign that in...but the next one explicitly takes place in Russia, and there's one in Tokyo, and one on Mars...so there will be some travel in these adventures.

Changes and Consequences

The big one in this is the explicit mention of Nyarlathotep. This gives you access to all sorts of Cthulhu cults, gods, and mischief. >The Dark Pharoah is used again in The Other Side in a much more explicitly Lovecraftian way.

Be nice if the "celebrities" table on the beach were a throwback to the All-American. I mean, he is a weatherman in the area, and there's a loose continuity. If you want to bring him in, you can.

The next Improbable Tales adventure is Vampires of Red Square and I would think that elements from this one could well appear in that one. Perhaps the Iron Hand tries to recruit the bad guy from that (the Iron Squid sub can go up the Moskva River). Or perhaps the Iron Hand is using materials that were created by the Nazi magical society here, and there's future conflicts as the Red Square bad guys try to get them. Or the Iron Hand succeeds in recruiting that bad guy, but they offend his Aryan ideals with Cthulhoid apocalypses. Several possibilities.

The Lazarus Serum is also a useful MacGuffin. You can use it (with suitable changes) to bring some character back from the dead (“I see! They misinterpreted this code phrase in the works of Nicolas Flamel as this other code phrase, so they used Egyptian mummy dust instead of bitumen! Of course!”) By definition some of the ingredients in Lazarus Serum are so rare that the Iron Hand had to steal them, so when it's gone, it's gone.

One of the nice things here is the extra scene: if you don't attack the island base, some other evil organization might well have an island base you can attack.

Assembled Updates

In general:

  • Invulnerability becomes Damage Resistance
  • Wizardry becomes Magic
  • Fast Attack gets increased because it operates in a different way; upping it to the level of the most common attack attribute (Prowess, Coordination, or Willpower) seems the best way to go

The Dark Pharaoh

He has the power Minions, which was created by Fainting Goat Games. The best fit is the Servant power, with this caveat: the servants in the power are explicitly said to have no mental attributes, and these minions clearly do. So you have a couple of options:

  • Ignore it. You're going to create the Minions using the "Avatar of Nyalathotep" quality anyway.
  • Ignore the mental attributes of the minions listed. Some of them are other-worldly creations, and can't be expected to think like earthly creatures.
  • Create the extra "Sapient" for Servant, which costs like all extras, but adds an additional four points per rank. You do have to buy mental attributes now, but you have extra points to do so. For some kinds of servants (a summoned demon, for instance) you might want to include the concept that it works against its master but obeys the letter of the command. I don't think that's worth an actual Limit, though I would throw the player a point of determination if it happened.

In practice, I'd probably just ignore it and use the Quality, but if you will be handing this power out to a PC, well, the extra is probably the way to go. I haven't tried it, so I don't know if it's overpowered.

Demonic Minions, Minions of Nyarlathotep, Elite Commandos

Just change Invulnerability to Damage Resistance.

Mystically Enhanced Zombies and Commandos

No changes needed.

Commander Draco

Invulnerability becomes Damage Resistance.

His Qualities might be: Criminal leader of fascist terrorist group Iron Hand; Prone to rage; “Iron Hand—attack!”

Iron Hand Giant Squid Sub

This gets altered a fair bit to meet the rules for vehicles in Icons Assembled, and even this version doesn't meet them; it's a 41-point vehicle, which according should be a Speed 10 vehicle. It ain't; it might be better to go back to the original design and just have it as a full character...in which case, you can use the writeup in the adventure. (I suppose you could grant an Extra that just doubles, the number of points, in which case this is the Vehicles power with that extra twice or three times, depending on whether the extra is geometric if applied multiple times or just additive.) Vehicles 3, Extras: Double pool points, double pool points, double pool points
Handling2 Speed3
Structure8 Armor3
  • Prowess 5
  • Tentacles (Extra Body Parts: grants Strength 7) 7
  • Aquatic 3 (speed only 2 out of water)
  • Fast Attack 5
  • Beak or tentacles (Slashing 5)
  • Damage Resistance (included above) 3


This one is fun. There are some nice pieces you can use; it's reasonably self-contained. Grade: A.


In a superhero story I am in the process of writing, who do you call when you need an infestation of vampires, werewolves, or zombies?

Do you call the Vatican? What if they're Jewish vampires?

Do you call the FBI? What if they're operating outside of the US?

Nah, you call the Center for Disease Control. The CDC has a division dedicated to eliminating zombies, werewolves, and vampires. They're just contagions of a different kind.

And mention is made of the "meme division" but apparently those boys are weird.

Flashing the CDC badge just makes me happy. And they're chronically underfunded, so they have an excuse to ask random strangers to help. "Here, you hold her chest while I place the syringe..."

"Don't you have to use an ash stake?"

"Not for a type 2b; an air embolism in the chest will do it. There you go. This fella here is a transformed super type, all scientific instead of mystical. Low chance of an outbreak with him."

"And you killed him?"

"Nah, The embolism just puts him into an agitated state where his heart decays as fast as it regenerates. Keep him weak as a kitten until we get him to the Center."


"Seven-D instead of a 2b. Run!"

Monday, July 29, 2019

Improbable Tales Volume 1: Primal Power


Obligatory Warning

If you are spoiler-wary, be aware that this entry (and this series) is full of spoilers. (On the other hand, the first adventure is from 2013. So, y'know, if you thought you might like to read it, you've had six years.)

Today we'll talk about Primal Power, an adventure by Mike Lafferty & Dan Taylor, with art by Adrian Smith, Darren Calvert & Jacob Blackmon.

And I did run this one, long ago. Here's the write-up by one of the players, Hugo-nominated James Nicoll. (I figure I can keep using the adjective until we've seen the results. Then I either don't mention it any more or I get to say “Hugo-awarded”.) He played Scamp.


A psychic supervillain gorilla sends intelligent gorillas to raise havoc at the zoo to cover an attempt to rob a nearby weapons lab.


Well, it's got gorillas. Who doesn't like gorillas? (And it has what is essentially Gorilla City, complete with advanced tech.)

Besides Gorilla City under another name, this also gives us a scientifically and technologically advanced research organization, something you can use again and again.

The whole point of the first action scene is to use the zoo, which is an environment that doesn't get enough time in superhero RPGs.

I really like the random table of superscientific weapons.

It's a small adventure. It might be slight—it doesn't spread its tendrils all over, slopping consequences all over. There's a mind-control ape out there; he's got a plan. Throw the players in.

I also like that there is mention of the various squads of agents that PATRIOT controls. Even though the heroes end up doing the important stuff (they're the heroes, after all), you don't wonder if the entire agency could be replaced by one guy with a web browser and Skype.

You're going to see this under Dislikes as well: portable psionic shields that mean it's not an adventure about being mind-controlled. Because, as the adventure rightly points out, having your player mind-controlled is not fun. I applaud that; it just short-circuits the make this adventure about that.


On the other hand, it is a slight adventure.

The supervillain can be taunted into a mindless rage, but I feel like there must be better ways to tell the players about it than to include it in the scene 2 briefing.

(Actually, it would be even nicer, he said with his trying-to-be-a-writer hat on, if the second briefing wasn't necessary: if there were something at the scene that would tell the heroes what Lord Virunga was up to. Maybe a clue or something. I see the difficulty: it's not like the lieutenant gorillas have pockets for the PCs to rifle. Still, some kind of option might have been available, with the briefing information as a fallback.)

In some ways, Lord Virunga is Confederape with additional flame control powers, so you have to work hard to make them distinct (if both exist in your game.)

While I applaud the idea of the portable mind shield projector, I have to admit that it blocks off a couple of options for future games.

The two hero NPCs are...well, one is mentioned as being there for mind-control if you want them to fight an enthralled hero, and the other does nothing from an adventure point of view, but she provides verisimilitude for PATRIOT and she is a potential PC. If you don't need her as a PC, I might replace her with a “normal” agent, simply saying that PATRIOT is stretched tight, and then use mind-control whichever hero will provide your gaming group with the biggest challenge...if, in fact, you want to have a fight against a mind-controlled hero.

Changes and Consequences

This adventure doesn't itself have a lot in the way of consequences, but it puts two new pieces in the playbox: the scientific lab (ARES) and the portable mind shields.

I'd probably limit the mind shields to some mind-control and illusions: then you can still have options (mental blast and telepathy are the big ones) but you don't get mind-controlled. Your Mysterio or Scarecrow villains can still use drugs to make you hallucinate, so that's not off the table. Or maybe the devices exist, but they were rescued from the wreckage of an alien spacecraft (a wrecked alien spacecraft is explicitly mentioned in the ARES backstory): we don't know exactly what these mind-shields actually do, but one of the side effects is protecting you from other people's mind control. “We'll need them back after the adventure. Sure, you can borrow them if you fill out these questionnaires and let us put these sensors on you.”

Man, I'd like to see more about Virunga. I'd spin out his and the city's backstory significantly.

I'd also do more with a rivalry or alliance between Lord Virunga and ConfederApe. Does one try to recruit the other? Is there bad blood because one refused the other (Virunga thinks that ConfederApe is not a “real” supergorilla, perhaps)?

Assembled Updates

Lord Virunga gets a makeover because Elemental Controls have changed and because Animal Control is now just Mind Control with a limit. Essentially, two of his powers get combined into one power. Specialties become Athletics, Wrestling, Science, and Technology. Powers become Growth 1 (Limit: Constant or permanent, whichever word you want). The Elemental Control Fire is just Fire Control 6, defaulting to Blast. Mind Control is plain old Mind Control with the limitation that he needs the helmet if he is to control anything other than apes, monkeys, and some lower primates.

His Qualities become:

  • Psychic Simian Mastermind
  • Hates humanity with a fervor
  • Longs for but outcast from Gorilla Nation

The Qualities for his lieutenants remain the same, because there are only three. Instead of calling them Qualities and Challenges, they're just Qualities.

Memphis Bell uses just Science Expert as a specialty instead of Science (Biology). Invulnerability 3 becomes Damage Resistance 3. Her Qualities become:

  • High ranking PATRIOT scientist turned superhero
  • To Serve and Protect
  • Bad luck socially

Lone Star trades one elemental control for another, but his Electricity Control is simple, defaulting to Blast. His Qualities might be:

  • Mid-level PATRIOT agent
  • Looking to cash in on his celebrity
  • Supremely overconfident


Despite the fact that I found things to pick on, this is a really solid adventure. It's very good for what it is. I'd give it a B+ or A-, depending on my mood that day.

This adventure is very good at what it does. Still, that's okay.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Improbable Tales Volume 1: Day of the Swarm


One of the things in my head in my head is a narrative campaign made of as many of the Improbable Tales adventures as I can fit together, so I thought I'd do a look at the various adventures there and see what they're made of and how you might update them, along with notes on updating the characters to Icons Assembled.

Obligatory Warning

If you are spoiler-wary, be aware that this entry (and this series) is full of spoilers. (On the other hand, the first adventure is from 2013. So, y'know, if you thought you might like to read it, you've had six years.)

And we'll start at the very beginning and work out a format as we go.


Giant ants are attacking the city, and it turns out they are sent by a nobleman of an underground empire to stop a new jet engine.


The structure is very streamlined; at a guess, it's informed by Ben Robbins' blogs and his Lame Mage stuff (most notably the Dr. Null stuff). For more Ben Robbins stuff on superheroes, you have to troll through his old Ars Ludi blog for things like Revelations, Damage Rolls, The Four Types of Supervillains, Action Schticks (Part 2). (Actually, you should go read the blog.)

That very leanness works against them, too: it looks like there ain't much there.

And there isn't. But, as Spencer Tracy is reputed to have said, "What there is, is choice."


They aren't tricky little plot modules. They're encounters: two to four action encounters that present a situation for the characters.

Sometimes that's not enough to distinguish it. Some of them make a point of telling you what feeling they're trying to evoke, which is nice.

And for all that they're streamlined, sometimes the choices can get buried in words. If you're just skimming, you might miss something. I might have pulled them out into lists so there's an idea on each line. And for all that they're short, if you try to run them on the fly (as I have done several times) they feel flat. You have to give them time to soak in your brain-brine so they fit with your style.

A Digression On Layout

Speaking of presenting items as lists...I'm increasingly dissatisfied with the layout choice to present in two columns on a letter-size page. I realize that works very well for a printed document, but a lot of stuff isn't printed any more: we look at it on phones and tablets and computers, and maybe print it when it's time to run...but we might not if it was in an electronic-friendly format to begin with. None of this is Fainting Goats' fault (they did release it in 2013), but I'd consider a 6x9 PDF with text large enough that it's a single column but still under 40 characters a line. I actually had to learn how to produce an e-book at the same time as I was going to run Sugar Hill Invasion, so I used it as an example and produced an ePub version of Sugar Hill. I didn't run from it, but I could have. I'd worry more about navigation issues if I were going to, though.

The Adventure Itself

I have not run this one. (I have run four or five of the Improbable Tales adventures.) There are three action scenes really:

  1. Rescue some kids
  2. Fight the ants at the barricade
  3. Go into the surrounded plant and find out what's really going on

The first two scenes are simple but nice, with an optional bit that I would probably fill out (the guy's wife just died, he doesn't want to go on, whatever). And it falls apart in the third.

Look, there are a couple of ways for the last scene to go, at least that I can see. You get into the plant and:

  • The bad guy makes a speech, and the engine is destroyed
  • The bad guy doesn't manage to destroy the engine, gets captured, and makes the speech
  • The bad guy does or doesn't destroy the engine (maybe he steals it) and escapes, and when the PCs follow him deep underground, he makes the speech. Maybe a big fight follows.

He's going to have to make the speech; otherwise the players have no idea what triggered this.

Plus, the first two options are buried in a discussion of the third one. The change of a stand-off in the plant is barely touched on, but he's got to be in there for his mental blast to work.

It would be nice if there were another way to get the information. Off-hand, I can't think of one: you can mind-read ants but they tend to be thinking ant-things, though use of a Determination Point might let the PCs read the psychic residue of the bad guy's mind, if your PCs have those kinds of powers.

The adventure pretty much depends on the Coopersville police department to get you into trouble. (Most of the adventures use PATRIOT, a SHIELD equivalent, to come and say, "Hey, there's trouble over here." It would be interesting to design something exists to get them into trouble, but an agency is a time-honoured mechanism: it's a reason for Delta Green, after all.

Changes and Consequences

I'd consider making the cause fracking instead of a jet engine. That makes it more of an ongoing thing than a one-off: they break the equipment, new equipment shows up, they show up again, and then the PCs discover the reason behind it all.

I might use a different location: by default it's set in Coopersville, a bedroom community for the city the PCs are in, but it might be interesting to put it in a place so remote that there are no superheroes, and our heroes are brought in. Or this is the second attack, and the first one was picked clean: the survivors talked about giant ants but there was little evidence: what there was might have pointed to the latest scheme by some supervillain instead of giant ants.

Actually, a really different location might stir things up, too: maybe they're effectively fire ants writ large, with a toxic bite. Or maybe it's a resort town up north, where it only thaws for three months and the appearance of giant ants is going to have serious repercussions on their local economy.

I'm sorry that other adventures or notes don't do more with Lyrax the underground empire (it might show up again in Stark City; I don't recall) because I think there's something interesting there...though of course, my mind drifts to the Freedom Force computer game and it's giant ant invasion. Presumably all nobles have some kind of mental powers; that's how they got to be nobles in the first place. Or, like ants, eating a particular food turns them into nobles (wait, that's bees...perhaps there's an ant equivalent to royal jelly) with mental powers. I do wonder what a society derived from Rome might look like after millennia of isolation.

Both this adventure and The Other Side use an aeronautics/astronautics company; it might be nice if they were tied together--maybe one is a contractor to the other.

Assembled Updates

The ants are easy to update...Invulnerability gets renamed to Damage Resistance, but everything else is the same. There are only two aspects, so they can be rolled together and create two Qualities.

Insector needs to have his Fast Attack changed because the way that Fast Attack works changed, but Fast Attack 5 should be sufficient: he's slightly less likely to hit with a second Mental Blast, but it's perfect for Bashing. Invulnerability becomes Damage Resistance. His Aspects really need to be whittled down, though. As Qualities, I'd suggest:

  • To rule is to be responsible to your subjects
  • Lives in darkness (can stunt for Super-Senses but takes extra degree of effect for Dazzle attacks that affect his sight)
  • “Fear me, surface dwellers! Fear the wrath of the Underground Empire!”

Okay, one more quibble: the text suggests that you play him as a subterranean equivalent of Prince Namor “rather than a cliched, hunch-backed, squint-eyed mole-man”...but the picture of him is of a cliched, hunch-backed, squint-eyed mole-man.

The All-American is presented here as an NPC or possible PC. You do have to change the Wizardry to Gadgets, and he has two devices with him as extras. Instead of making the Blinding into Dazzle (the first inclination) I would make them Sensory Resistance 4 (Extra: Burst, Limit: Only normal sight and maybe sound and the limit makes it Resistance 4 instead of 2). He throws them down, they create an area of smoke that is -4 to sight Awareness rolls, maybe -2 to sound during the first couple of panels while they're spewing out smoke. I'd trim his Qualities to become:

  • Secret ID of Patrick Bay, TV Weatherman
  • Brash and arrogant
  • Addicted to danger

Unless the character is a PC, I wouldn't worry about the Police-Superhuman Liaison aspect at all.


If I had picked this up as a solo adventure instead of as part of an omnibus, I might have passed on the following ones...but I didn't, and I didn't.

This one is kind of uninspiring, I'm sorry to say. It's not bad (none of the Improbable Tales adventures are bad) but it is sort of...well, average. It's elevated a bit by structure (though it took me quite a while to understand that the leanness was a benefit). I'd grade this one a C+: it's okay, but Mike Lafferty can do better. And later, he does.

(Now, I might have missed something obvious in this. Feel free to tell me so. Heck, feel free to correct my spelling.)

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Robot(s) for "Lair is a Eulogy"




ProwessGood (5)IntellectAverage (3)
CoordinationGreat (6)AwarenessWeak (2)
StrengthGreat (6)Willpower
  • Weapons (blaster) (+1)
Powers It has sonar (Poor (1) Super Senses ) to see in the dark and Fair (4) Damage Resistance. It can hit, and has an Average (3) Blaster built into its chest.
  • Robot
  • Programmed responses

Slicer-Dicer Robot

Created by the Repair robot after the original security robots were destroyed out of available parts.

ProwessGood (5)IntellectFair (3)
CoordinationGreat (6)AwarenessWeak (2)
StrengthGreat (6)Willpower
  • Weapons (Edged) (+1)
PowersIt has sonar (Poor (1) Super Senses ) to see in the dark and Fair (4) Damage Resistance. It replaces the Blaster with two big swords built into its arms (Good (5) Slashing, Extra: Effect Good (5) Slashing) and Good (5) Fast Attack; it tries to combine attacks for a Great effect.
  • Robot
  • Big
  • Jury-rigged

A Lair Is A Eulogy (Mynah Story)

First draft, first draft, first draft.

A Lair is a Eulogy

About sixty percent of supervillain friendships fail, by which I mean that one eventually tries to kill the other. So you’d figure, why even try?

But you might as well ask, “Why get married?” and folks do that all the time.

So when the Silk Fury approached me with a business idea, how could I say no? Because the Silk Fury.

And maybe we’d get to be friends.

(Also, she’s like ninety, so there’s a good chance she’d be dead before trying to kill me.)

She lived in a gated community. The guard gave me a once-over — I was dressed in her costume from the subpar biopic — and gave me directions. The door knocker was tarnished from all the hands that had used it but she answered the door herself.

She led me to the back patio. She was spare and bird-like, and she still moved pretty well.

“Nice outfit,” she said. She moved her hand, indicating I should twirl to show it off.

I did. “Sorry it’s the movie version.”

“You know they had to put all kinds of cutouts so the stunt woman could move? And then they had to do weird angles to hide them.”

“Modern fabrics help a bit. But I figured the Mynah costume would attract attention.”

She shrugged. “Long as you’re not a bill collector, they wouldn’t care. Sweet tea?” I nodded. “You know the film, you must know Professor Plunder.”

“Inventor and thief. Pulled off some big jobs, including the case of the lost Atlantean gold. Nobody knew who he was or ever found out.”

“And they’re never gonna. He had family. You know my relationship with him?”

I was proud to show off. “I’m a fan. Your first love. You might have started as his sidekick, but you don’t know, because Anodyne erased your criminal memories at Plunder’s request. Eventually you got a pardon after saving the world.”

“What you don’t know is that I wrote him love letters. With his real name.”

“How do you remember? Anodyne was supposed to erase—”

“That was a story, kid. Anodyne could suppress memories but not erase them. Some came back.”

“Okay. How does that translate into work for me?”

“Which leads to the second question: What do you know about delvers?”

“People who find former supervillain bases and explore them. Like people who explore former missile bases. It’s usually illegal because the bases tend to be on someone else’s property. They sell the artifacts if there are any.”

She kept smiling at me.

“OMG. Someone found Professor Plunder’s base?”

She smiled. “I follow the delver boards.”

I said something equivalent to “shut the front door,” and “Then they know who he is. Was.”

She shook her head. “Nope. But: his lair moves and they know how to get to it tomorrow.”


“I remember how to get to it today.”


The thing about Art Deco robots trying to kill me is that their acoustic shielding prevents any of my Crappy Sonic Powers™ from being, you know, damaging.

Professor Plunder knew his stuff. The robots’ force blasts did not penetrate their armor so I couldn’t stand between them and dodge while they took each other out. The force blasts were sonic and didn’t affect the walls or instrumentation, either. Bright side, their punches did, and they kept punching like the mindless automatons they were.

The birthday present was that they used sonar to “see.”

I can mimic sonar well enough that it was less “trying to kill me” and more a demolition derby. I perched on the entry ladder and let them not see walls or each other until they were almost all gone.

The deal was I stole things with his real name for her and kept anything else I could find. Stolen gold, if I found it. Weapons would be obsolete but might fetch on the collector market.

The last robot was standing in the room, unable to move and facing away from me. How much easier could it be?

I dropped down behind him. This headquarters was a converted WWII submarine, so it really only had two directions: fore and aft. While I mentally flipped a coin to decide, another robot came in.

Was I going to have to trick its sonar?

No; it started collecting pieces of downed robots. Automated cleanup. I didn’t wait to see if the remaining guard robot would blast it; I had things to do.

The doors were submarine hatches: big surprise. Everything was small and cramped. It was probably why the robots had legs, though; wheeled robots would be trapped in a single area of the headquarters.

Behind the new robot was the machine shop. The cleanup robot started hauling pieces in. There were already robot husks in the room with a third robot already working. I saw that it was fast; I’d probably have to face two or three robots on the way out: Don’t steal anything bulky.

I’m sure someone who knew about Professor Plunder would have been fascinated, but I knew him only as an adjunct to Silk Fury’s story. So I slipped past it and into the next room. I shut the bulkhead door behind me and scanned the area. Galley, but neat and clean. No dust…which was to be expected if the cleanup robots were still working. Next was a tiny dining room (mess area?) and then two doors. Well, one door and one curtain.

Behind the curtain was his office. I gave it a quick exam: blond wooden desk with stationery (personalized, no less); two sets of calling cards (one set with “Professor Plunder,” one set with the name “Scott Prendergast.” His name. I slipped them into a pocket. There were files in the drawers, but all the ones I looked at were gadget designs. Interesting as a collector’s item but probably obsolete.

I did grab his pen set and a small black prism-shaped paperweight with PLUNDER written on it; I love pens, and I figured the paperweight worked as a set.

Across the hall was his bedroom. It was sparse: bed, night table, lamp, two wardrobes. Pictures of dogs playing poker on the walls…probably not ironic.

I looked at one of them. It was actually a dog as a judge.
And it wasn’t a print. It was a painting. Maybe an original.

I noted it and went on; I was looking for the love letters.

The clothes were nothing special in the first wardrobe.

The second one was…

It was a shrine.


The lair stayed in one place for only a few hours at a time, but she knew where and when it was going to be today. With that kind of time pressure, I didn’t have time to do a lot of research: I barely had time to change uniforms (I was not going as Silk Fury: besides the awkwardness of the outfit, it had no pockets, or the hidden things I had secreted in my costume) and grab my gear. We met at the entrance location. She pointed out the access tunnel, and made arrangements for pickup. At worst…well, at worst I’d be dead, but somewhere along the line was the chance that I’d be there overnight.

I didn’t want that to happen: I didn’t want to have to evade the delvers or their on-ground support people, if any.

I was sorry that she and I hadn’t got a chance to talk, really.

It was a short acquaintance, and I was hoping that the betrayal part, if it happened, would be far in the future.

The deadline made me doubt that, though.


Photos of the Silk Fury adorned the inside of the wardrobe doors; an old costume of hers hung there; and a ledge held letters.

Most were written is cross-hand style: The first sender wrote in the normal way and the recipient replied on the same page but at a right angle, so one letter had both exchanges. A couple of letters, the ones I was interested in, had no replies. She had sent them to him and they had gone unanswered.

Well, not really: One had a salutation but nothing else. The other had the start of a reply but nothing past the first paragraph. I checked the dates: Both close together in 1961.

The third was her good-bye note. It listed what she wanted Anodyne to remove.

I stuffed them in my carrying bag, then the costume. Personal reasons.

At that point, there was a loud bang, my flashlight went out, and there was the sound of shouting. Then shooting.

Delvers? The bang was typical of an EMP grenade; there’s a limit to what it would affect here because these things ran on vacuum tubes, but it certainly fried my light. I checked. And my phone.

Some day I had to figure out how to use my powers for sonar, but that was in the future. In the meantime, help them? Or not? What they were doing was illegal.

Well, technically, what I was doing was illegal.

I had the letters. There was no pile of Atlantean gold sitting here, so I stuck my head into the dark corridor and listened…

…and nearly had it taken off as someone ran into me.

“Ow!” she said even though she was the one who had thumped my head into the metal doorframe.

“In here,” I said, and pulled her in to the room before I shut the door.

She turned on her glaringly-bright flashlight —shielded, I guess. “That thing — Lars —” And then she shrieked again and I heard three gunshots, though I think she emptied the pistol: I saw her pulling the trigger but nothing was happening.

“Stop! It’s like a Flintstones Roomba.” I might have shouted because I had no idea what a normal tone was.

Of course, if I couldn’t hear her, she probably couldn’t hear me. Unless she had ear protection. I plucked the hot pistol from her, managed to eject the clip, and gave it back.

Her mouth moved. She probably had ear protection. She said something to me, but I just touched my ear and stood motionless in the big wide silence with my back to the door.

She went over to the bed and touched it reverently. Her search of the bedside missed some things I had found, which made me feel better. I noticed that she gave the remains of the proto-Roomba a wide berth.

And then she found the shrine. And stared at it.

I could hear a little by then, and she was probably louder than she intended. “So that’s why he never married.”

I cleared my throat. “You knew him?”

She started. I guess she could hear a bit, too. “Of him. One of my grampa’s younger brothers.” She looked back at the shrine, then at me. “I guess you’re the Mynah.”

“Guess I am. You are?”

“Elizabeth Prendergast. Mom’s sick so I need to find the gold. Lars volunteered— Lars…” She started to cry. Not big heaving cries or anything, just tears leaking without stopping.

That was an interesting name. I handed her a 1960-vintage kerchief from the dressing table. “Your boyfriend?”

“A friend. He wanted more but…” I felt uneasy watching the tears leak out.

Which could be the point. Maybe she was lying; it’s not like we carry ID around. Maybe she was a supervillain…

“The robots weren’t that tough,” I told her.

“For you, maybe, but for us? It was big and mean and bulletproof and slicey.”

“I didn’t fight a slicey one.” I thought I had gotten them all—

“I’m not lying! There was another one repairing it but it was in good enough shape to…” And the tears got bigger.

“Okay, Elizabeth Prendergast.” I hoped her full name would help. “There’s got to be a second exit.”

“Betsy. Call me Betsy.”

I almost responded with my real name and then caught myself. I didn't know anything about her. “Betsy. Imagine you’re in bed, suddenly you’ve got Captain Wonder coming in, what do you do?” She just stared at me. “If the gold was physical, he'd want some of it as he left. It’s along his escape route.”

“Oh.” She pointed. “Then head away from the official entrance.”

“There’s no second door or a hidden passage, so the hall.”

It was dark in the hallway, but she had a flashlight. She didn’t resist when I took it. Our hands touched. You’d think I never touched anybody before. Jesus, I clearly was lonely. As I put the loop around my wrist, I murmured, “You threw an EMP grenade?”

“Lars said it’s standard practice to throw one in.” I could practically hear the tears hitting her jacket, now that my hearing was back.

“You knocked out my flashlight.”

“I thought you’d have special stuff.”

“Off the shelf is harder to track,” I said, which was a pretty good reason considering I just made it up.

“I meant like sonar and…stuff.”

“Eventually,” I said. “It’s not like powers come with a manual.” We just entered a living room. “Or even an IKEA instruction sheet.”

She snorted, which made me immoderately proud.

I glanced the light around the room. Sofa, chairs, big framed photos taken by somebody without a lot of talent, but they were all things he was on record as having stolen. Six painted torpedo tubes, several of them altered to be cupboards of some kind. Actually, Austin Powers would have loved this place. Shag carpet, lamp, cigar store Indian—what?

Nope: my second look confirmed it was a big slicey robot. I pushed Betsy to one side, glad she didn’t have the gun, dove over the sofa, light splashing all over as I moved. From this angle it looked like there was a spiral staircase heading down.

I don’t much like spiral staircases.

“You go down, I’ll deal with this!”


I pointed to myself. “Super,” then her. “Not super.”

Big talk. I had no idea how I was going to deal with it.

The other robots had seen by sonar, so it was easy to make them attack each other: I made things “invisible” by neutralizing the clicks. I tried the opposite tack and flooded the area with sonar clicks so it didn’t know where the walls were.

It stopped and moved forward at one quarter speed. Then when nothing stopped it, half speed and speeding up.

I hoped it would hit a wall but it had a floor plan or something memorized as it charged to my last known location.

(I was elsewhere by then, thank you.)

This spoke of learning.

I had to breathe. I dropped the illusion.

I heard Betsy’s footsteps on the stairs, and the robot detoured that way. I flashed the light at its back and said, “Hey!”

I’m not witty. Sue me.

The idea was I’d fight the killer robot on my own in the dark.

Its back had the same emblem I had seen on the fronts of the robots. It had front & back emblems. What did that mean?

Betsy said the smaller robot had been repairing this one. So this robot was built from pieces of the old ones.

Interesting if true. Right now it was heading to the stairs. Where Betsy was.

I said “Hold my beer” to the fighting idea and tackled it low, around the knees. It fell on its knees and chest.

That didn’t mean it couldn’t attack me. It still rotated arms and torso like a machine, not a human. And it did.

I dodged the first strike as I was disentangling my legs from its legs and was very proud that I’d managed to dodge the second as I rolled away.

Then my side started to burn, and I saw that I was very close to performing in the gore burlesque: a long line of skin was exposed where the sword had slashed it and the skin was starting to pink up, welling blood.

I did the only sensible thing: I dove for the stairwell.

I knew I wouldn’t go through the stairs; they were full of Betsy. We tumbled down against the railing and halfway to the floor below.

I tried not to think about what part of her I was taking my hand from as I looked around.

This spiral staircase ended in a frickin’ door.

Spiral staircases are evil. That’s just a fact.

I heard the robot moving and I sent a lot of sonar clicks up the stairs. Maybe that would be like a covered-over stairwell.


Betsy tried the door. It was, of course, locked.

I couldn’t even try to talk to Betsy because I was busy making sonar noises.

She said, “Lure it down here, around the stairs. We’ll sprint back up.”

Slow robot has to be slow going up the stairs too, right?

I nodded, stopped clicking, and said, “Agreed.”

We got in position.

It came down, Betsy sprinted up, it moved around and blocked my path.

It was cramped enough here that it couldn’t slash, only thrust. At least Betsy was safe, I thought as I dodged deadly blades.

If I could lock it inside that room—

Look, maybe it could get in. Somehow. Then I could break the lock—somehow—and it would be trapped.

Somehow, somehow, somehow.

I stood in front of the door and cancelled out the robot’s sonar.

The flaw was that I was in the way while it charged forward. At the last moment I tried to dodge but didn’t make it: the robot hit me, I hit the door, and the door splintered.

I flailed as I thought this because I had not expected to be tumbling into a room, I had expected to be crushed by a quarter-ton of killer robot. I mean, I was glad of it, but still—

W. T. F?

Some of the doors were hollow-core interior doors painted to look like metal. Why?

Get back on track: killer robot in front of me.
I was faster: faster to get up, faster to get to the stairs, faster to go up them, flashlight bobbing all the way up.

In the living room, Betsy was gone. (At least there wasn’t a big pool of blood.)

I kept moving fast to the entry foyer. No robots there, just poor Lars’ corpse; a dead guy downgraded this from hideout to lair. The paralyzed robot from earlier was probably in the repair shop.

I knocked on the door before I shut it: metal. So I latched myself in with the dead man.

Mystery: where was the robot I had left there?

Probably in the repair center over there. I figured slicey-robot had been built out of the husks of the one I destroyed.

Mystery: Where was Betsy?

She should have left, but she needed that gold and Lars was there.
She couldn’t have gone another way. Could she?

This lair had engineering access areas underneath but really, there was only one floor. She wasn’t aft, she had to be fore, toward the big drill.

Something clanged against the door. I didn’t have time to be squeamish. I made a face and then frisked Lars’ body for weapons and equipment.

I left his personal stuff, his watch and wallet and such-like, behind. His phone had been crushed but he had a tablet in a waterproof case. He didn’t even have a gun.

Second clang at the door.

A robot with swords for hands probably can’t work a circular wheel. I had a second still.

Mystery: He didn’t have a gun but Betsy had had a gun. Was this some weird double-cross by Betsy? Or she didn’t give him a gun because he was trigger happy? Or, third possibility, the repairing proto-Roomba I saw earlier took the gun and it was now going to be part of some robot I met.

I sighed. I needed to find Betsy, and I had to figure it out fast, because I couldn’t defeat Slicey out there and I wouldn’t be able to defeat this hypothetical Pistolbot.

It would be nice if I could disable all the robots at once because I had nothing to show a profit on this deal except for a nice pen set, but I’d settle for surviving.

Somewhere in the room, a typewriter rattled into action. It startled me, but I found it by the ladder to the conning tower.

Not a typewriter; a teletype. I had never seen one. I angled the flashlight to read what it was typing.


I said aloud, “Do I have to type? Or can you hear me?”


What new wizardry was this?

Brain in a jar? Seemed in line with the tech but even brains need to be fed and this had been here 40 years.

Robotic intelligence? AI wasn’t Plunder’s style: he was evolutionary, not revolutionary. Dr. Myrmidon had AI in 1965 (look up “Dragonjaw”) and maybe he owed Plunder a favor. Unlikely.


I’m a supervillain now; I think stuff like that. Or maybe it was like ADT for supervillain lairs. You pay a fee, they watch your place. (Siri, reminder for five years from now: if remote security for lairs doesn’t exist, start it.)

Except Plunder was rumored to have that gold. What are the odds it could stay secret for forty years? Once ersatz-ADT knew he was dead, nothing could stop them from stripping the place clean.

Okay. So AI is most likely of an unlikely lot.

“What can I call you?”


I was expecting “Killatron” or “Defense-o-Matic” but Frank?

A trans AI? I mean, why shouldn’t they regard “Killatron” as the dead name?

“I don’t really see this as an impasse, Frank. I can go up that ladder and exit any time I want.”


Betsy was still here? “I only just met her.”


“The place has been found. You’re going to have more tomorrow, all looking for Professor Plunder’s gold.”




“Nutrient bath and stuff? I can’t even figure out how it gets delivered to a secret location.” A desperate gamble here: “I knew a guy that became a brain in a jar.”


“I can put you in touch. What are you?”


Sometimes you just have to believe people, and believe in people. Maybe this was a traitorous AI and she was a supervillain, but maybe not.

“Where's the other one? She's your relative. Stop the robot outside.”


“I’ll find her! Just…stop the robots.”


I hesitated a long time before I opened that hatch because, you know, sixty per cent of super-villains turn on each other. I did it and ran to the living room.

“Betsy?” I called. “Betsy!”

One of the rounded tubes against the wall swung open. “Mynah?”

“I need your help.”

“I’m not super.”

“But you are a Prendergast.” I gave her a hand getting out. “So is the lair.”


“Here you go,” I told the Silk Fury when I handed over the letters.

“That’s it?”

“There’s no gold,” I told her. We were having tea on her back deck. “Frank Prendergast was paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident in 1962. His brother Scott paid for his care and later gave him a remote control gadget to run the lair.” (Poor Lars died because the nurse had trouble finding and bringing it—Frank hadn’t used it for decades.)

“He was always sending money for Frank.”

I nodded. Nice to have confirmation. “When Scott was declared dead, Frank inherited everything, including the value of the gold. Gold was still $35 an ounce; it wasn’t worth what it is now. Most of that got spent: institutions are expensive.” I didn’t tell her that there were two physical bars stashed in the torpedo tube that Betsy had hidden in. Frank gave Betsy both of them: at a guess, about a hundred thousand dollars worth.

I handed her some pictures from the shrine. “Given their history, I think you can sell these for about a hundred thousand.” I looked around. “Keep this place going for a little while.”

She looked at me and then laughed. “So you know I was playing you.”

“For the gold? Yeah. The deadline was the big clue.”

“How do I know you’re not playing me?”

“You don’t, I guess. But I’m guessing there are enough clues in the letters to point you to a hidden stash or two. Worthless to me, because I don’t have the context.”

She laughed some more. “Well, I’ll see if the Delvers have found them yet. If I need someone to go in, can I hire you?”

“Sure. But straight cash. All I got out of this one is a pen set.”

Not quite: I got to keep the pen set, the paperweight, and the contents of the shrine. (Collectables are worth a lot if you know where to sell them, and I'm a fan.)

Plus I made friends.

Robot write-up